“This vaccine was tested in the pandemic here and now,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, a Harvard Medical School professor whose lab at the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston developed the J&J vaccine. “The pandemic is a much more complex pandemic than it was several months ago.”
Some of that difference in performance also could be attributable to different patient populations or disease conditions, and not just the mutant virus. A large percentage of South Africans carry the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. Chinese vaccines have performed wildly differently in countries where they were tested in recent months.
“We don’t know which vaccines are the Lamborghinis,” Poland said, “because these aren’t true head-to-head comparisons.”
3. Speed is of the essence.
To stop the spread of covid, the mutation of the virus that causes it and the continued pummeling of the economy, we all need to be vaccinated as quickly as possible. The inadequate supply of vaccines has been felt acutely.
Dr. Virginia Banks’ 103-year-old mother is one of the few living Americans who were around for the country’s last great pandemic—the 1918 influenza—yet she’s been unable to get a covid vaccination, said Banks, a physician with Northeast Ohio Infectious Disease Associates in Youngstown.
Patients can’t be picky about which vaccine they accept, Banks said. People “need to get vaccinated with the vaccines out today so we can get closer to herd immunity” to slow the spread of the virus.
Banks has worked hard to promote covid vaccines to skeptical minority communities, frequently appearing on local TV news and making at least two presentations by Zoom each week. Blacks to date have been vaccinated against covid at much lower rates than whites.
“There’s a downside to waiting,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and health policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Delaying vaccination carries serious risks, given that, as of Saturday, some 2,000 Americans were still dying each day of covid.
4. The J&J vaccine appears to have some real advantages.
First, it seems to cause fewer serious side effects like the fever and malaise suffered by some Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccine recipients. High fever and dehydration are particular concerns in fragile elderly people who “have one foot on the banana peel,” said Dr. Kathryn Edwards, scientific director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program. The J&J vaccine “may be a better vaccine for the infirm.”
Many people may also prefer the J&J shot because “it’s one and done,” Schaffner said. Easier for administrators too: just one appointment to schedule.
5. The J&J vaccine is much easier to ship, store and administer.
While the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can be stored in regular refrigerators, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine must be kept long-term in “ultra-cold” freezers at temperatures between minus 112 degrees and minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines must be used or discarded within six hours after the vial is opened. Vials of the J&J vaccine can be stored in a refrigerator and restored for later use if doses remain. “Right now we have mass immunization clinics that are open but have no vaccine,” said Offit. “Here you have a single-dose regime with easy storage and handling.”
A person’s address—not their personal preference—may determine which vaccine they receive, said E. John Wherry, director of the Institute for Immunology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. He pointed out that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a simpler choice for rural areas.
“A vaccine doesn’t have to be 95% effective to be an incredible leap forward,” said Wherry. “When we get to the point where we have choices about which vaccine to give, it will be a luxury to have to struggle with that question.”